Group work and collaboration

Strategies to support group work and collaboration on projects.

Undergraduate students at table

Challenges of group work

Working with others is something you will be asked to do time and time again, both at University and beyond.

At face value, this might seem like something that is easy enough, but there are many challenges that working with others is likely to present.

You need to consider how you will adapt to each challenge to get the most out of not only the group, but yourself too. For example, you will need to

  • consider different peoples' learning styles, their different strengths and weaknesses, what motivates them and what makes them lose interest in a task

  • understand your role in the group, as well as everyone else's

  • develop the social skills to know when to stand your ground and when to compromise, when to offer and give help if it's needed and how to appreciate different methods to your own

  • develop a shared understanding of what the task is, agree who will do what and when and how each member will report back to the group as a whole

301 Recommends: Group Work Digital Workshop

Our workshop on Surviving Group Work focuses on the strategies and techniques to not only survive, but maybe even enjoy group work. It will help you to work through getting to know your group, setting ground rules and organising your time together, so that everyone knows what is expected of them and any issues can be spotted and resolved long before your deadline.

Our Assessed Group Work workshop focuses on the strategies and techniques that you can use to make the most of your experiences of group work at university. It will help you to work through the stages of group formation to get to the point where you are a functioning, well-organised team with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, a communications strategy and a balanced workload.

Try our Group Work interactive digital workshop to find out more about how to get the most out of your group work. 

Our workshop on Setting Up Your Own Study Group will look at the logistics of organising the sessions and communicating with your peers, as well as the facilitation skills that will help to generate a positive, comfortable and collaborative learning environment for everyone.

Developing group work skills

As a student, now is the ideal time to develop this skill. You are given the opportunity to work with your peers. These are people in exactly the same position as you, going through the same experiences and likely to share a lot of the same worries you do.

This is a safe and supportive environment in which you can discuss ideas, learn from each other and develop key skills that will benefit you throughout your entire career.

Your peers might well have developed hard-won knowledge about how best to approach a subject you are really struggling with; in turn you might have worked out plenty for yourself that others just haven’t realised.

Furthermore, you can help one another hugely simply by acting as a sympathetic audience and critical friend.

Learning to deal with the challenges, reflect on the experience and articulate what you have got out of the process will transform group working into a valuable skill to draw on in other contexts such as job interviews and assessment centres.

It’s for all of these reasons and more that you will often be expected to participate in group tasks and activities, or might set these up yourself.

The resources and strategies outlined below will help to make sure that you get the most out of these opportunities to collaborate with other students.

Group roles

Identifying roles within a group can be a good first step towards ensuring that the environment is a productive and supportive one.

Have a look at the list below and think about which of these roles might suit you within a group project.

Are there roles that you can recognise yourself adopting? Are there roles that you think are missing within your group?

  • Organiser: Plans and schedules meetings.

  • Facilitator: Sets a agenda, chairs meetings.

  • Recorder: Takes and shares notes and actions.

  • Liaison: Asks questions and reports back to the tutor.

  • Timekeeper: Sets milestones and keeps the project on track.

  • Prioritiser: Identifies key tasks and responsibilities.

  • Reporter: Feeds back on the project as appropriate.

  • Devil's advocate: Challenges the prevailing thinking.

  • Harmoniser: Aims to keep the group working well together.

Certain roles can help to keep the group focused and organised (.doc, 89.9KB) around a task, such as a facilitator, timekeeper or prioritiser. Others will help you to encourage and critique one another's ideas, such as the innovator, devil's advocate or harmoniser.

Remember, not all groups need all roles, but thinking about the appropriate ones for your project and allocating them early on can help you to hit the ground running.

This short Study skills hacks: Group roles in group work video explores the different roles that you may wish to identify within your group to get things moving smoothly and keep your group project on track:

This interactive independent study digital workshop explores the challenges and opportunities of working as part of a small group and the skills that you may need to get the most out of the experience. 

Understanding group behaviours

Working with others can make you behave differently than if you were working alone.

It's the same for everyone, which makes seeing those behaviours unfold and change as the group comes together one of the pleasures – and potential challenges – of group work.

So the question becomes one of working through and making the most of the dynamics that emerge within a group, rather than trying to work around them.

The more aware you are of how you're behaving, the more potential there is for changing and helping the group change too.

Awareness also helps you understand why others in the group behave in certain ways. You can step back and ask whether or not this behaviour has to do with you as individuals, or how you as a group are working.

The University of Sheffield Behaviour in Teams project has identified a number of behaviours that influence group wok both positively and negatively:

  • Proposing procedures: putting forward ideas about how the team operates and organises itself
  • Proposing ideas: putting forward new ideas relating to the task
  • Building: adding to or expanding on someone else's ideas within the group
  • Supporting ideas: expressing your support for someone else's idea or opinion
  • Supporting others: expressing your support for someone else's approach or contribution
  • Disagreeing: raising objections or obstacles to someone else's ideas
  • Checking understanding: asking for further information to clarify someone else's ideas or opinions
  • Seeking task information: asking questions about the nature of the task or process
  • Seeking personal information: asking others about personal facts or feelings
  • Shutting out: deducing other's opportunities to contribute (e.g. by interrupting)
  • Bringing in: encouraging another group member to contribute or speak
  • Lightening the mood: telling jokes or making humorous interjections

Understanding group behaviours eases some of the heartache of group work, as you realise that difficulties are not always caused by particular individuals within a group (yourself included), but rather about the way you have all approached the task together.

The main thing to remember on group projects is that you are all working towards the same goal and you want to achieve as much as possible. Creating an environment where you can all contribute to this end goal is the job of every group member.

301 Recommends: Dealing with Difficult Moments in Group Work Study Skills Hacks Video

Watch this short study skills hacks video for tips and ideas on dealing with difficult moments on group projects. 

Air time

Not everyone finds it as easy to 'think on their feet' or to contribute to a fast-paced discussion. 

That is not to say that less vocal members of a group have anything less useful to say. On the contrary, groups that encourage balanced contributions from members are likely to enjoy greater shared ownership of a project and its outcomes. 

Air time, or the proportion of a meeting that each individual takes up through their contributions, is a useful way to think about maintaining a balance. Key questions to ask yourself include:

  • How much air time are you using in a meeting?
  • Are there group members who are using less air time than others?
  • Can you use positive behaviours to share out air time equitably? For example 'bringing in', ' 'building' or 'checking understanding'.

Remember, some group members may need more time to think things through before speaking up, so try to find ways for everyone to prepare in advance or build in thinking time to meetings, for example by using post-it notes or jamboards to generate ideas before launching into open discussion.

Tools for digital collaboration

There are many tools and resources available to facilitate collaboration and allow you to work collectively as a group from remote locations. Some tools you may want to consider using include:

Trello: A simple and free online project planning and management tool. Trello allows you to divide up a task into sub tasks, allocate responsibilities among a group and set and track deadlines.

Padlet: A free tool that allows you to pool ideas remotely in a group, using the equivalent of digital post-it notes. You can get down your initial thoughts on a topic, organise your ideas by theme or create a structure as part of the initial planning stages of a project.

Google Suite: There are a range of collaborative tools available via Google Suite, which you can access via your University login. For example, you can use

  • Google Docs to create a collaborative document

  • Calendar to organise your time

  • Slides to develop a group presentation

  • Drive to store and manage files and resources

Top tips

Think about what your own strengths or positive attributes are, as well as things you are less comfortable with. This will help you identify what you can bring to the group, as well as the things you would find more difficult on your own.

Try to stay open to the ideas and contributions of others, even if they contradict your own thinking. 

Be a good communicator. This means genuinely listening, as well as being able to present you own ideas. Be constructive with your feedback.

Be organised. Treat the process professionally. So, set ground rules, allocate different roles or tasks to each member and make sure everyone is kept aware of developments

Reflect and review. Make sure you are sticking to deadlines and dealing with any issues as they arise. Most importantly, do this as a group. Make sure that no one is making decisions individually.

You will encounter difficulties, this is inevitable. The important thing is how you deal with them.

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Summer support

Are you getting ready to start a new academic year? Or preparing for summer resits?

We have a whole host of support ready for you to access whenever you need it. Our online resources allow you to develop your academic skills at your own pace, building on your existing skills ready for whatever you are facing next.

Take advantage of our curated Level Up Your Skills packages and start working through resources for your upcoming level of study, or use study skills online to find specific topics you want to work on.

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